Blow Out (1981)

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Take an Antonioni classic, Blow-up, make it about sound rather than pictures, add a dash of Kennedy crisis (Chappaquiddick/Texas), mix in a hint of right-wing conspiracy theories, use the ideas in Coppola’s The Conversation, and whisk into a Hitchcockian pastiche. And there you have it. A recipe for one of the key films of the Eighties, courtesy of Brian De Palma. This man knows his movies. Shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, sound by Pino Donaggio, star by John Travolta. Yum.

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Dressed to Kill (1980)

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A film that practically embodies the term Psychosexual. Brian de Palma’s outrageous, explicit Hitchcockian homage (some might say rip off, Hitch called it fromage) still has the power to shock, with its jawdropping opening sequence – married Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) masturbating in a shower while her lover shaves in a mirror. She fesses up to her psychoanalyst Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) that she’s faking it because her lover’s not really up to it then asks him if he’s attracted to her. She does the  Vertigo shtick at the Metropolitan in Kim Novak’s off-white coat and when she drops a glove (fetish alert!) she attracts a man in shades (another warning).  He gets her off in a taxi (yes, this has to be seen to be believed) then wakes up to find a medical notice in his apartment …. and enters an elevator to leave the building when she suddenly remembers her wedding ring and presses the button to return to the scene of the extra-marital crime … You had me at hello!!! Call girl Liz (Nancy Allen) is the only witness to the murder – while the killer is a mysterious tall blonde in shades. Dickinson’s teenage inventor son Keith Gordon plays private dick, Allen becomes the woman in peril stalked by the tall blonde in shades, the shrink gets taunting messages from Bobbi, a transgender patient, and it all ends just the way you want:  blonde on blonde. Crazy, classic warning cinema – beware of shrinks and nooners! The soundtrack by Pino Donaggio is brilliant. Wild!

Psycho (1960)

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Sometimes we are in danger of overlooking the greatest filmmakers – and Alfred Hitchcock never won an Academy Award, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about recognition. As we know from Sacha Gervasi’s supremely funny and informative Hitchcock (adapted from Stephen Rebello’s The Making of Psycho) the great man needed a new project that would excite him. Yet he had been coining it from his TV show and was the most famous filmmaker on the planet. He should have been resting on his laurels on the eve of his sixtieth birthday – instead he took a radical new direction, had a true crime shocker by Robert Bloch adapted (by Joseph Stefano and his own wife, Alma Reville, who was uncredited) and filmed it in monochrome on his TV sets on a low budget. He created film history. No matter how you feel about the auteur theory (and I’m agnostic depending on the day/the director) he was responsible for pursuing the notion of the split protagonist to ever more devastating effect from Shadow of a Doubt (1943) through  Strangers on a Train (1951) and Vertigo (1958) which were adapted from neo-Gothic novels.  And here, in perhaps the ultimate noir tale, troubled mama’s boy Norman Bates internalises a perplexing matriarch and compulsively stuffs birds in an attempt at a kind of female individuation. It is of course the blackest of comedies. It boasts two astonishing performances – Janet Leigh in the first forty-five minutes, whose desires as Marion Crane drive that narrative, until she crosses paths with a confused motel proprietor, Anthony Perkins as that charmingly twitchy mother-loving madman. This is a tour de force in presentation:  these drab worlds are the external realities of the protagonists and the flatness of the style is then rendered bent in two by juxtaposition with the extraordinarily inventive murder sequences –  the shower scene cannot be adequately described, only experienced (preferably only cinematically) and definitely with those screaming violins. It was released 57 years ago and was the start of something entirely new that goes beyond its being merely the parent of the slasher flick:  a cinema of unease, a cinema of anxiety, something totally modern that severed the connection with the democratic and the unified. Cinema was never the same afterwards. And look at all those references to birds! A preview of coming attractions, as Grace Kelly once told us. Totally terrifying.

Frightmare (1974)

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Aka Cover Up. And on this eve of lost souls it is only right to return to the world of Pete Walker, that sleazy trash maestro of Britcult, encompassing cannibalism, lunacy and serial killing. As you were.  Jackie Yates (Deborah Fairfax) has been dreading the release from a mental asylum of her father Edmund (Rupert Davies) and stepmother Dorothy (Sheila Keith) who apparently ate 6 of their victims in a 1957 killing spree. Now they’re back. And a lot of young people are disappearing in the neighbourhood. Time for Jackie to turn Nancy Drew with her boyfriend Graham (Paul Greenwood). The complicating issue in her quest to stop the driller killers is her stepsister Debbie (Kim Butcher!) who wanders  off at night with a biker gang and appears to have a genetic predisposition to human flesh …  Written by Walker and David McGillivray with sounds by Stanley Myers (any relation to Michael?!) in an outing which boasts the usual Walker flourishes and desposits what Rosemary Woodhouse might call a sort of chalky undertaste. Notable for an appearance by the lovely Leo Genn in his second last screen appearance ever, as psychiatrist Dr Lytell. Care in the community? Psycho on the streets! Happy Halloween!

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

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It was a dark and stormy summer night on Long Island when I first saw this and I can barely re-watch it to this day. The story of serial killer Freddy Krueger and the teens whose dreams he inhabits was an epoch-defining event in the horror genre and made Wes Craven’s name as well as starting a profitable franchise and introducing Johnny Depp to the world (although he’s soon swallowed by his own bed.) Heather Langenkamp is the cop’s daughter who draws the short straw and has to lure Freddy out so he can be captured …  Don’t fall asleep. Don’t take a bath. Don’t unplug the phone. And don’t be the child of a vigilante! Perfect Halloween horror.

Don’t Answer the Phone! (1980)

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The old saw regarding the difference between the sexes goes, Men are afraid that women are going to laugh at them, Women are afraid that men are going to kill them. So it goes here, in this ghastly exploitationer from Crown (who else). Written and produced by Michael D. Castle and Robert Hammer, who directed. A Nam vet stalks the streets of LA tracking and raping and murdering women. He calls a radio shrink to inform her of his ill-health and kills a victim on air. His porn photos lead police to his door. This is sick and ghastly and impugns vets. It’s why people watch Downton Abbey. Frasier this ain’t.

The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1969)

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Or, how a spaghetti western writer (Once Upon a Time in the West!) created the European slasher film with a stylish twist in this chic Roman giallo thriller. Dario Argento made his directing debut with this tale of an American writer (Tony Musante) who happens upon a near-homicide in a gallery and he and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) become the prey of an unhinged serial killer while assisting police. If it seems a tad familiar it’s because it’s a riff on The Screaming Mimi which was already filmed under that name earlier in the decade in the US. Wonderful camerawork and sheer chutzpah camouflage a few plot holes but this set Argento on a long and brilliant career. It’s hard to see it in the cut originally intended since it varied from territory to territory but worth catching any which way you can as it just hasn’t dated. And Maitland McDonagh has written a wonderful study of the man and his influential films which is a great read. See this first!